Being an actor under SM Entertainment seems to come with a lot more disadvantages than perks. The label holds a reputation of churning out idol actors who tend to land roles on the basis of their looks and/or preexisting popularity as an idol rather than their talent. While it’s fairly safe to assume that SM’s idol actors aren’t brilliantly talented when it comes to the small screen, it does result in some unfair judgement for SM’s small host of actual actors — that is, people who entered SM having undergone training for acting, rather than becoming a K-pop idol.

Go Ara was signed to SM in 2003 and made her acting debut in the same year with the KBS drama Sharp #1. Since then, however, her small screen acting resume hasn’t seen much daylight: she reprised her debut role in Sharp #2 in 2005, starred in Snow Flower alongside labelmate Kim Kibum in 2006, had another starring role in Who Are You in 2008 (not to be mistaken for the tvN drama of the same name that aired last summer) — and of course, the failed drama that seemed to forever seal her fate as a mediocre SM idol actor without the idol perks: Heading to the Groundher 2009 piece de resistance.

In between her drama gigs, Go Ara made herself something of a familiar face amongst SM’s idol scene. She’s performed as a singer in several SMTown concerts, and appeared in DBSK‘s 2011 Before U Go music video. SM promotes her under the stage name ARA (in all caps, of course!), making it all the more difficult to tell whether Go Ara is supposed to be an idol or an actress — and her reputation of being one of SM’s many pretty faces doesn’t help, either.

20140111_seoulbeats_goara3So what’s with all this post-Answer Me 1994 fuss lauding Go Ara as an acting genius? Her so-called “image shattering” performance as Sung Na-jung turned many doubters into believers. Despite initial doubts that this pretty face from SM would be taking on the lead role in the next installation of the popular Answer Me franchise, many were praising Go Ara’s performance by series’ end.

Of course, credit has to be given where credit is due — Go Ara’s character in 1994 just so happens to be incredibly likable, and any actress who’s willing to completely trash their image and put on a few pounds would probably have a blast with this role. In many ways, the character of Na-jung is a perfect break-out role for any actress looking to prove herself: she’s funny, likable, complex (but definitely not in that muted, dramatic kind of way), and she’s unabashedly real. This isn’t to say that playing Na-jung is an easy job, but there’s really only one big requirement when it comes to a character like her: be human. Humans laugh, fall in love, make ugly faces when they cry, accidentally fart in front of their friends — all of which Go Ara conveys through her performance as Na-jung.

It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to pinpoint several other actresses who would have done an equally good job of playing Sung Na-jung, but for Go Ara, 1994 has the potential of being a career game changer. While it’ll probably take more than one drama for Go Ara to completely rid herself of her reputation as a talentless pretty face, 1994 was the best project for Go Ara to demonstrate not only her flexibility as an actress, but her humility and openness towards her projects, as well as her dedications to her roles, having chopped off her hair and gained 18 pounds just to play Na-jung.

She’ll still be one of SM’s token pretty faces and she’ll probably still be marketed as ARA, The Idol-Actress-Chimera whenever SM feels like it, but Go Ara is well on her way to developing her career as a young actress   who’s already proven her abilities on both ends of the spectrum.

(images via tvN, Elle)